Using Contemporary Memoirs to Teach Genocide


Humanities I in Action is a course that challenges students to deeply consider their place in the world, and, in the end, to contemplate action steps to bring healing. However, this noble pursuit requires traversing a dark path. During the first semester in Humanities I in Action our in-class study considers the dark side of the human condition through William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, various psychological and sociological experiments, and the study of genocide.

Following our study of Lord of the Flies, we study indexvarious psychosocial constructs that contribute to the worst excesses of human history. James Waller‘s excellent Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (2007) helps the class name psychosocial conditions that lead to genocide: escalating commitment, ethnocentrism, diffusion of responsibility, ritual conduct, xenophobia, desensitization, the bystander effect, us-them thinking and more.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 10.58.46 AM
In addition to Waller, we also use Philip Zimbardo’s three-part “The Human Zoo” video series to illustrate these themes. This program, which students thoroughly enjoy because of its reality-show format, includes references to the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, which provide students with rich material to ponder human nature and behavior. Finally, we use Gregory Stanton’s 10 Stages of Genocide to explain how genocide occurs, and make students aware of the current listing of countries that are on the genocide watch list.

This then leads to the Rwandan genocide, indexwhich we use as a case study of how these various psychological and sociological factors came together to produce the most efficient mass slaughter in history – done mostly by machete. We watch the outstanding, if traumatic, feature film “Shooting Dogs” that enables students to consider how society can commit the worst atrocities imaginable. The final part of the unit is the genocide memoir project.

Genocide Memoir Project

Last year my colleague Jon Bryant created an open-ended project about genocide memoirs that proved to be highly successful. Students were given choices of a number of genocide (or near-genocide) accounts to read and asked to share an experience of the book with the class. The book options were:

  1. Road to Lost Innocence: A True Story of a Cambodian Heroine  (2008) by Somaly Mam
  2. Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (2011) by Yangzom Brauen
  3. Slave: My True Story (2011) by Mende Nazir (Sudan)
  4. Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Genocide (2006) by Imaculee Illibagizaindex
  5. A Long Way Gone: A Boy Soldier’s Memoir (2007) by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)

The directions for the project were straightforward: “Create a meaningful 20-25 minute experience for the Humanities I in Action class. In this project you are to re-tell the story you read in an engaging way and explain the significance of the story. Incorporate specific talents of each of your group members into the presentation in a way that enhances the impact. Your work must be original. You should use a variety of mediums and methods to convey your message. This might include an original song, poem, art work, interactive game, video, tribute speech. Consider the talents present in your group. You should use specific quotes and stories from the book to highlight the thesis of your presentation. Although these stories require experiencing deep sadness about injustice, I want the focus to be on the positive, the active, the hopeful, and the future.   The point of these stories is to learn from our mistakes and inspire us to positive action.”

The total amount of time from when the books were first chosen until the presentations was about 4 weeks.

Exemplar Projects from Last Year

Despite having a strong group of students, I was quite nervous about how the projects would turn out. The books were assigned while I was away for a conference in the US, and I gave little concrete direction upon my return beyond the description above. To my surprise and delight, all the groups did high quality work. Each project showed high engagement in the memoir, development of original art or music, and well-prepared presentations that took at least the allotted 20-25 minutes. (I allowed some projects, which had developed engaging educational games, to go longer than the prescribed time.)

When I kicked off the project this year, I shared two exemplars from last year:

(1) I was initially dubious that an all-male 9th grade group indexcould pull off a serious project on Somaly Mam’s Road to Lost Innocence, an account of a young Cambodian’s experience of sex slavery, but the boys proved me wrong. In fact, it was the finest presentation in the class. This is the order of their presentation:

  1. PowerPoint introducing the book and author, including an interview.
  2. Simulated online reality of Somaly’s world created by one of the students.
  3. Created board game played in small groups about Somaly’s choices as a trafficked sex worker.
  4. Two poems about Somaly’s experiences.
  5. Results of a survey gathered from the students in the class to educate them about the issue of human trafficking.
  6. Original song about the book.

While the presentation was very well throughout, what made it truly memorable was the conclusion of the presentation, an original song written by one of the boys, Parker. The music and lyrics were all composed and then recorded by Parker himself, while the video was shot by Parker’s brother, McKay, at the Child Rescue Center in Kranglovear, Cambodia.

It’s important to note that since the boys did this indexproject last year, Newsweek argued in a lead story in May, 2014 that key aspects of Somaly Mam’s life story were fictionalized. Less than two weeks later she resigned from her foundation.  However, a follow-up story in Marie-Claire questioned aspects of the Newsweek account. I’ve told the group this year that this issue needs to be raised in their presentation of the book.

(2) The second notable presentation was on the book Acrossindex Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen. This was the order of their presentation:

  1. Book summary using original illustrations organized as a child’s story book design.
  2. Collection of excerpted online video clips that describe the daily life of Tibetan monks.
  3. Summary of relevant Tibetan history.
  4. Jeopardy game review of Tibetan history.
  5. Original composition of a piano piece.
  6. Final video on the theme of freeing Tibet.

The highlight of their presentation was an original composition performed by Sherry  describing the journey that the author’s mother undertook as she escaped from Tibet to India during the imposition of Chinese rule.

I found out later that Sherry finished second in an all-state competition in California a couple of years ago. Like Parker’s piece above, the class was spellbound by her composition.


Every year when we assess the most valuable content and activities of the year, the genocide unit always ranks at the top. Students simply cannot believe that such events are happening in their lifetime rather than something relegated to the past like the Holocaust. It is a wake-up call for them – and many begin to show interest in the news in a way that they never had before.

Allowing students to express their learning through the Genocide Memoir Project has only enhanced the importance of this unit in our curriculum. The highly engaging and even shocking memoirs, the semester-long focus on the themes that come to life in the books, and the opportunity to then express their thoughts and feelings through a sustained presentation that requires original artistic pieces all combined to make this a highly successful project last year.

In the next blog I hope to share what I learn when doing this project with my current class of students.


Waller, J. (2007). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Link for feature image:

Note: This blog entry began as a Prezi, which can be accessed here. Links to the two songs are imbedded in the Prezi.

2013-09-07 01.10.57Sherry with Claire on our first service outing of the year.

DSC_3920Saying goodbye at the Foshan Orphanage. Parker is center right wearing a blue shirt and holding a child in a red and yellow top, while Sherry is center left in red.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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11 Responses to Using Contemporary Memoirs to Teach Genocide

  1. Jim Handrich says:

    What an outstanding unit and culminating projects. I think your students will remember what they learned and created throughout their lives. Such fine teaching!

    • Thanks, Jim! I thought that Parker and Sherry’s compositions were once-in-a-decade projects from two very talented musicians. However, when I showed these in class, this year’s group immediately sprang to life figuring out how to top these. The power of exemplars! The presentations are on Tuesday and Wednesday – we’ll see what happens.

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